Latin Grammys 2018

Spinal Tap's Derek Smalls on His Return With 'Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing)'

Rob Shanahan
Derek Smalls

"There's only two kinds of people in the world: people getting older and dead people."

In the annals of rock n' roll history, Derek Smalls is there.

As created by Harry Shearer, the British-born bassist is best-known for his membership in Spinal Tap -- including misadventures with plastic stage pods, zucchinis (not cucumbers) and stage directions -- though his career also took him to the Christian rock band Lambslood, the solo album It's A Smalls World, a film role in Roma '79, Belgian snack food TV ads, and gardening, where he patented the all-black Death By Midnight Rose.

Since Spinal Tap's last demise, after the One Night Only World Tour in 2009, Smalls has been quiet. He breaks this silence on April 13 with Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing), a new solo set whose massive guest list includes the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Chad Smith, Paul Shaffer, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, David Crosby, Toto's Steve Lukather, Bon Jovi's Phil X, Dweezil Zappa, Richard Thompson and many more. 

He may be Smalls but, as he tells Billboard, he's still a big deal.

So where have you been?

Well, when the band -- I don't want to say split up because it's not like all the fractious infighting and name-calling and furniture throwing you hear about. It's more like...do you remember Pangaea? All of a sudden you're looking at Pangaea, and then there's South America and Africa instead. That's what it was like. So that happened and I was in Albania hanging out with my friend Eddie from the near death metal band Chainsaw Vermin. He asked me to join the band and I thought to myself, "Derek" -- because I call myself Derek -- "this is where it ends. You're the substitute bass player for Chainsaw Vermin."

But it's not where it ended.

No, that's right. I saw a notice from the British Fund For Ageing Rockers, giving grants to aging rockers. If that's not me, I don't know who I am. So I applied and they gave me a big grant and I had to come up with a concept for the record, because the form has a big blank space that says, "What's the concept for your project?"

So what was the concept?

I was stumped for a while. Then I thought, "Wait a minute, they say you should always write what you know, so what do I know?" I mean, what DO I know? I'm getting older, I know about that. Let's write about that -- and by let's, I mean me. I'm the only one of us in the room. Then it occurred to me people are going to say this is a narrow sort of demographic target, only writing about people who are getting older. So I said to myself -- in response, as if in a debate except I'm still the only one in the room -- "There's only two kinds of people in the world: people getting older and dead people." So I was aiming to at only the more affluent part of that marketplace, the one that actually has the get-up and go to buy records.

You have a lot of great guests on the album. How'd you get 'em?

Increasingly persuasive phone calls. Increasingly urgent pleas and inquiries. There were no threats, really. And those were met by a spirit of such overwhelming generosity and almost love in response. One of the players -- I don't remember which one it was, specifically -- summed it up in a few words; He said, "Sure, man. It's like a pity fuck," and I took that to be a great compliment, as I've been on the other side of that myself.

Smalls Change was co-produced by Harry Shearer. He's got a rep as being a real piece of work.

I never saw him. He puts his name on things. With him the ink is never dry...

How does it feel to be back in the music biz again?

It's like a rebirth, without the squalling and the puking. It's square one. It's starting the game over again, like when you call "New game!" in some games and then you start over again and you get to play with different rules because you're the leader now.

Is your Spinal Tap history a blessing or a curse?

It's both an albatross and a tuna. It's a good thing because I'm known and people will recognize me. It's a bad thing because they'll recognize me and it's, "Oh, are you wearing the cucumber in the trousers tonight" or "I see you got out of the pod," ridicule like that.

At least you've made your mark.

You can say that, but...You know, if you give it a moment's thought about light-gauge aluminum foil and tight trouser fabric, a cucumber surface is going to be revealed to be far too warty for the desired effect. You need the smoothness of the zucchini. You would never use a cucumber in that occasion. But that was misinterpreted as something I need to do, that I had problems. Actually I never had a problem with it, but we were embarking at the time on our largest tour, our first real American tour, bigger houses than we ever played, and I said to myself "Derek" -- 'cause I call myself Derek -- "I said, Derek, maybe a little stage fright, a little nervousness might impinge so maybe an insurance policy is in order." That's what it was -- an insurance policy.

And you had something to snack on after the gig.

Well, I don't know if you've ever put anything in your trousers, spandex trousers, and then seen it later on. It's not an edible treat -- only if you like mush, maybe.

You're getting ready for your own tour, with orchestras. Have you requested detailed maps to the stage at those venues, also as an insurance policy?

(sighs) That happened once. Once. It happened to be documented by somebody who was doing a hatchet job on the band as opposed to a fair-minded documentary. It never shows you all the times we found the stage. And on that tour, just to pick an example -- I'll be approximate -- about 90.0427 percent of the time we found our way to the stage straightaway. You didn't see it in the film, did you? You ask yourself, "Why not? Did he have an agenda?"

You've only got a few shows on the books right now. Will there be more?

We have these few coming up, culminating at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (July 19) and then we take a break, a hiatus as they call it, and resume in the fall with some dates in the U.K. and then come back here for more.

Are you thinking about a next album yet?

Oh, I can't even think that far in advance. I'm pulling off this one now. I'm going to do everything I can for it and hope people like the shows and then see what happens. I did a new song for a special surprise single, a digital download for Record Store Day called "I Kissed A Girl."

And did you like it?

And I liked it. The thing is, I'd noticed that though women had hit records with that title and I thought there's a reckoning moment there. It's about time for a man to have a hit with that title.

Will we ever see Tap back together?

Well, is Pangaea gonna get back together? That would be my question to you. Is South American going to merge with Africa again? If you can tell me the answer to that, I can tell you the answer to your question.